The COVID-19 pandemic has ignited interest in age-specific manifestations of infection but surprisingly little is known about relative severity of infectious disease between the extremes of age. In a systematic analysis, this study identifies 142 datasets with information on severity of disease by age for 32 different infectious diseases, 19 viral and 13 bacterial. For almost all infections, school-age children have the least severe disease, and severity starts to rise long before old age. Indeed, for many infections even young adults have more severe disease than children, and dengue was the only infection that was most severe in school-age children. Together with data on vaccine response in children and young adults, the findings suggest peak immune function is reached around 5–14 years of age. Relative immune senescence may begin much earlier than assumed, before accelerating in older age groups. This has major implications for understanding resilience to infection, optimal vaccine scheduling, and appropriate health protection policies across the life course.